CHESTER — Chester air and water advocates fanned out for hours Saturday afternoon as they gathered petitions to end incineration in the city and to keep its water under community control.

"We’re collecting signatures to heighten the awareness of what’s going on in Chester," activist Zulene Mayfield said in the middle of the effort across from the newsstand at Avenue of the States. "We do have a lot of issues, as far as the school, as far as the privatization of our city, as far them trying to privatize our water, our sewer, sewage treatment place. But overall, we think the biggest threat to everything in Chester and everyone in Delaware County is the air that we breathe.’

Other locations where signatures were being collected by Chester Residents Concerned for Quality of Living included the Dollar Tree on Avenue of the States, Ninth and Kerlin streets, Burman's Pharmacy and Sam & Sam Meats in Upland. Organizers directed anyone who wanted to sign the petitions to visit chesterresidents.org.

In one petition addressed to Chester City and Delaware County councils, signers called on city officials to stop "supporting the importation and burning of trash at Covanta's incinerator in our city and to stop putting the health of our community up for sale!"  

Petition signers also called on county council and municipal leaders to urge the Delaware County Solid Waste Authority to not sign a new contract with Covanta. The current five-year contract will expire on April 30, 2022, although a potential extension can be attained as early as May.

In the second petition addressed to Chester Receiver Michael Doweary, Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland, state Rep. Brian Kirkland, D-159 of Chester, state Sen. John Kane, D-9 of Birhmingham, and Gov. Tom Wolf, signers want to see water remain in local hands. 

In May 2017, Aqua made an unsolicited bid to buy the Chester Water Authority for $250 million. Since then, the issue has been tied up in the courts with multiple lawsuits. One of the ways state-appointed officials have been considering easing Chester's financial challenges is a sale of the water authority.

Part of the water-related petition read, "We strongly support Chester Water Authority and demand that our water remain in public hands rather than be sold to a for-profit or investor-owned utility ... We understand that the City of Chester has financial struggles dating back decades. Selling our water system is not a solution that should be entertained ... ratepayers must have a voice in these matters!"

City resident William Clark signed the petition, adding that he liked the CWA quarterly payments.

"I want to save the water company," he said. "It’s been here for years. It’s been an establishment in my community for years. It did the people right.”

Verniece Jackson participated in the signature collection Saturday.

"What’s most important is keeping our rates the same as they are and as they have been for years because not everyone can pay higher rates in the city of Chester," the city resident said. "They cant afford it."

She said some residents struggle to pay their taxes, the stormwater fee and have concerns with how the recent reassessment will impact them.

"It's a lot," Jackson said. "And some of them now can't pay the Chester Water Authority, so how can they go beyond that? Even though you may have a promise today, who knows how long their promise is going to last?” And Aqua is for profit."

Aqua officials have said that rates would remain stable for a decade and then after that, any rate increase would have to gain approval from the Pennsylvania Public Utility Commission.

Regarding the air quality, Mayfield described Covanta's impact on the residents as a violation.

"You're talking about burning trash, 3,500 tons of trash a day, that primarily comes from New York, it primarily comes from Philadelphia, the rest of it comes from Delaware County and the city of Chester only generates 1.8 percent of the waste but we get all of the pollution, we get all of the health effects, we get all of the cancers, we get all of the asthmas," she said. "We view the air and the pollution that is coming down on us as being a daily assault."

Aleisa Myles, a Widener University diversity professor and member of Transition Town Media, said she stood in solidarity with CRCQL.

"I see how much there is environmental racism going on here and how easy it is for people to ignore these issues and not think about where does their trash go, where is their trash getting burned, where is their water coming from," the Media resident said as she collected signatures Saturday. "The rest of the county and New York and Philadelphia are benefiting off of people here being poisoned."

Mayfield expanded on that.

"Every time a community like Chester, a predominantly black area, is affected with something, they always try to blame the victim – it’s our lifestyle, it’s our diet but they don’t want to factor in the pollutants that we live with," she said. "We know that certain pollutants directly affect your neurons and your neurological health ... We believe that because our children are being polluted so bad, they may be losing the ability to learn or it is greatly impacted.

"We’re looking at the high crime rate of Chester and is the pollution a contributing factor?" Mayfield continued. "We believe it is. There's no way you can stop the aggression from lead exposure." 

She said that the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has determined that  if a mother is carrying a child and exposed to particulate matter, that pollution not only is a direct threat to that child she is carrying but also to that child’s grandchild.

However, Mayfield added that it's not just Chester that experiences ill effects.

"If you put your trash out on the curb and you have no other thought as to where it goes or who it impacts, then you’re doing yourself an injustice," she said. "Because we see it, we smell it, we hear it but you get the same pollution we get. It impacts our children, it impacts our seniors, it impacts the property values.

"Delaware Countians can no longer sit back in comfort and say, ‘Oh, it’s happening in Chester,’" she continued. "If you allow it to happen in Chester, you allow it to … happen to you too. There’s no separate pipelines. There’s no magic shield over Chester. What they do here is happening to your community. The air from that stack goes 17 miles.”

Part of the complexity of the issue includes the community host fees that the city receives annually from Covanta ranging from $1.4 million to $5 million.

"It has to be more than profits over people," Mayfield said. "I call it a prostitution for pollution. Don’t prostitute my life, my health for some profits.”

She offered an alternative.

"If people who put out a bag of trash in their community had to pay $250 a bag, let that money go into a trust fund, let that be divided amongst every man, woman and child in the city of Chester," Mayfield said. "You’re going to do two things. Number one thing you’re going to do is lift people up out of poverty. Number two, people are going to get real (expletive deleted) inventive as to what trash they generate.

"Right now, we’re paying for it," she said. "If you live around an incinerator, the estimation from the EPA is that it lowers your lifespan five to 15 years. Who the (expletive deleted) in Delaware County wants to give up their life? Because I sure don’t. And to ask me for your comfort if that’s OK? No, it is not OK. It’s not OK. It’s not OK. We have the same right and quality of life as everywhere else. Our children have that right and they deserve that from us.”

She questioned how many students are sent home because they can't breathe and how many seniors can't walk a few blocks without using a nebulizer even though they haven't done anything wrong.

"I think it’s an unfair position to put 33,000 people who are from an economically distressed area, educationally distressed area, so now, don’t … tell me that I gotta be the trash manager for New York, for … Chestnut Hill and Philadelphia, for all of Delaware County, all of it," she said.

Mayfield said Chester and Delaware County would go on without the incinerator.

"If they decided to shut down today, guess what?" she asked. "Our city will stand. Our city will stand. And people will find something else to do with their damn trash. I don't want to be the waste manager. I want to be a resident, that's it."

Mayfield noted the strength and resilience of city residents.

"What’s right about our city is Chester residents are not laying down," she said. "We are not going to give up because this is for our survival ... Yes, this is a battle. It’s not going to go away and neither the hell are we. This is our city.”

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